Thursday, July 04, 2002
Fact Checking the President: What the Founders Didn't Do

Most of the major news outlets are carrying something about President Bush's speech in Ripley, West Virginia, today. In the speech, Bush claimed, "The founders humbly sought the wisdom and the blessing of Divine Providence." While that's, in some sense, true, it's not absolutely true. Sometimes, The Founders choose not to engage in prayer when conducting their business.

According to H. W. Brands in his The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Anchor, 2000), Benjamin Franklin proposed that every session of the 1787 Constitutional Convention begin with a prayer, and the convention rejected his proposal.

Another Franklin proposal received equally short shrift. A month into the convention the body had made frustratingly little progress. Franklin noted that the delegates had searched history for guidance and looked to the govenments of other countries. "How has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings?" At the onset of the troubles with Britain, the Continental Congress, meeting in this very room, had daily requested divine help in finding its way. "Our prayers were heard, sir, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed the frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favour." Without Heaven's help the delgates would not be where they were, attempting what they were attempting. "Have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance?" Franklin remarked that he had lived a long time. "And the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men [emphasis in Brands]. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?" The sacred texts declared that "except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it." Franklin said, "I firmly believe this." Without heavenly aid, the delgates would build no better projects than the builders of Babel, divided by petty, partial interests. "Our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a bye-word down to future ages." Humanity might well despair of establishing governments by reason, and leave it to war and conquest. Accordingly, Franklin moved to start each session with a prayer and to secure the services of one or more of the clergy of Philadelphia for the purpose.


His argument failed. After Hugh Williamson of North Carolina pointed out that the convention lacked funds to pay a chaplain, Edmund Randolph offered an amendment to Franklin's motion. Randolph suggested hiring a preacher to give a sermon on Independence Day, less than a week off, and thereafter to open the sessions with a prayer.

Franklin accepted the amendment, but the delgates put off discussion by recessing for the day, and the proposition died. Franklin remarked with some wonder, at the bottom of the written copy of his speech, "The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary!" [Brands, pg. 678]

Perhaps President Bush is referring to the Continental Congress's meetings as Franklin did above, not to the Constitutional Convention. Even then, the historical fact, which no amount of wishing and hoping can change, is that the record is mixed at best regarding prayer by The Founders. And at the time of the drafting of the document by which we conduct our political lives, the Constitution, the choice was not to pray each and every day.